The Kansas City Royals pulled off two trades before the 2017 July trade deadline, making an extremely clear statement to the rest of the league: we’re going for it. The Royals chose rather smartly, snagging a quartet of players that did not cost a significant amount to acquire but who still definitely improved the team.
While sellers at the trade deadline can have a collection of reasons to sell—from a full-on fire sale to just squeezing value out of expiring contracts to simply offloading salary obligations—buyers at the trade deadline are almost always looking to immediately improve in the second half and do not usually care so much about down the road.
Yes, as we saw with the Cahill/Buchter/Maurer trade, the Royals received two players who will be on the team for multiple years. But the reason that general manager Dayton Moore executed the trade was to improve the team right now, and you’re kidding yourself if you think there’s a different master plan behind it. The Royals needed pitching to make a run at the playoffs, so they went out and got pitching. The Royals needed another bat and they went and did it. If they didn’t need those things this year, those trades don’t get made. You can make as many trades as you want for how long you want in the cold apocalypse of the baseball-less offseason.
And so it’s odd that the Royals didn’t make the single trade that would have improved the team the most: trading Alcides Escobar and farm system talent to the Cincinnati Reds for Zack Cozart.
Escobar’s stranglehold on the shortstop position has always been bizarre. Shortly after writing an inquisition to the baseball gods about Escobar’s leaden consistency at shortstop almost a month and a half ago, Escobar went on a tear, allaying some fears that Escobar was washed up. He certainly dug himself out of from the ‘historically terrible’ hole he dug himself into.
But here’s the thing about baseball: it’s a slow game, and it takes months of data to make a reasonable evaluation of a player, and sometimes not even then. Sometimes it takes years, and years are always better than months.
There are many offensive stats, but OPS is a simple shorthand that contains similar worth to more advanced statistics without being as obtuse. OPS, or on base plus slugging, simply adds on base percentage and slugging percentage together, and thus gives value to both an ability to get on base (through average and plate discipline) and power (through strength and speed).
Escobar bottomed out with a .429 OPS one June 9. League average this year, for reference, is about .770. In the next 35 games and the next 138 plate appearances, Escobar posted a .855 OPS. Still, Escobar’s last eight games have yielded a .509 OPS, and his overall line is still at a measly .572.
Cozart has a .971 OPS. On the year. The whole year. And he’s also one of the best defending shortstops in the game, too.
Of course, this is all moot if Cozart wasn’t available or within the Royals’ capacity to acquire. But Cozart was available, and while he has been hitting extremely well, the market for a shortstop at this year’s trade deadline was practically nonexistent. Not only that, but the market for rental hitters in general this year hasn’t been very good; those two things combined meant the Royals could have nabbed a guy with Ben Zobrist-like production for much less cost.
Moving forward, Cozart will absolutely provide more value than Escobar, most likely by a significant margin. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system projects Escobar to be worth only 0.1 WAR for the rest of the year, and has Cozart at 0.9 WAR. And ZiPS, like all projection systems, is conservative: Cozart is at 3.5 WAR this year already, and while some regression to his career averages is expected, nobody would be surprised if he put up 2 WAR for the rest of the season.
Escobar’s offensive woes aren’t limited to this year, either; he has a .615 OPS since the start of 2015, a number that is the worst among all qualified players in Major League Baseball over that time. Meanwhile, Cozart has a .812 OPS over the last three years. Again, more data is always better than less.
But if more data is not always better for you, and any new idea after 1980 is foreign to you, let’s spell it this way: do you want a great defender who hit .252 with 13 HR and 139 RBI over the last three years, or do you want a great defender who hit .272 with 37 HR and 117 RBI over the last three years—who did so in two thirds the games as the first? You’d pick the second player without hesitation.
It’s clear and has always been clear that Moore and manager Ned Yost love Escobar. That, more than anything, is why this trade wasn’t made. And it may not matter—as of right now, a wild card appearance is Kansas City’s to lose—but it may matter. If the Royals miss the playoffs by a few games, Escobar continuing to flail and Cozart continuing to hit, then the front office’s fondness for Escobar won’t matter one bit.